The Persons Case, 1929

The Persons Case is a historic part of women’s fight for political equality in Canada. The case is significant for establishing that interpretation of the Canadian Constitution is adaptable to the changing needs of society and for determining that “qualified persons” in the British North America Act, 1867 (BNA Act, now known as the Constitution Act, 1867) includes women. This decision paved the way in Canada by asserting women’s rights to be active in political life.

The events leading to the Persons Case began in 1916 when Emily F. Murphy was appointed as the first female police magistrate in the British Empire. Undermining her authority, lawyers challenged her position as illegal on the grounds that a woman was not considered to be a person under the BNA Act, and therefore she was unable to act as magistrate. Although the Provincial Court of Alberta would confirm Murphy’s appointment by declaring women as “persons,” this decision was not proclaimed federally.

Over the next 10 years, the federal government faced pressure from women’s groups to appoint a female senator. The government declared the appointment of a women impossible according to the BNA Act, which specified only “qualified persons” could hold a senate position. Turning to the law, Murphy found that under section 60 of the Supreme Court Act, five interested persons are allowed to petition the government for interpretation on a constitutional point.

Murphy enlisted the help of Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney, and Irene Marryat Parlby—now known as the “Famous Five”—who were engaged politically and championed equal rights for women.

A black-and-white photograph showing five women standing on either side of a man.


(Front row, L-R): Mrs. Muir Edwards, daughter-in-law of Henrietta Muir Edwards; Mrs. J.C. Kenwood, daughter of Judge Emily Murphy; Hon. Mackenzie King; Mrs. Nellie McClung. (Rear row, L-R): Senators Iva Campbell Fallis and Cairine Wilson. This photograph was taken at the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case, which established the rights of women to hold public office in Canada. Photograph taken by Eugene M. Finn, National Film Board of Canada, June 11, 1938, Ottawa, Ontario. (MIKAN 3193154)

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Do I have the right to vote? Letters from women to the Canadian government, 1918-1919

Canadian women received the federal right to vote in three waves of legislation. It began with Prime Minister Robert Borden initiating the Military Voters Act of 1917, which enabled Canadian women on active service to vote. Borden also implemented the Wartime Elections Act that same year, which extended the vote to Canadian women who were related to men in the military forces. Lastly, on May 24, 1918, royal assent was given to a bill extending the vote to Canadian women who met the same qualifications as voting men. These quick and successive formative events caused confusion for the public.

The collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds various letters written by Canadian women that demonstrate the impact of the vote and include questions about their own personal eligibility to cast a ballot. Seeking information directly from the source, women wrote to Prime Minister Robert Borden and other government officials.

In a letter dated December 1919, Mrs. King of Colonsay, Saskatchewan inquired if she was eligible to vote as a Canadian citizen married to an American citizen. Her inquiry was forwarded to the Department of Justice, which replied that she should be eligible to vote based on her information and enclosed a copy of the Act. They also noted that her inquiry was not typically an affair for the Department.

The confusion between the Dominion Elections Act and the temporary wartime voting measures is evident in a letter dated February 17, 1919 from Mrs. Lillian Dill of Oshawa, Ontario. Mrs. Dill requested a copy of the Act in order to understand its impact and her eligibility to vote. Continue reading

Temperance, social reform and the quest for women’s suffrage

At the beginning of the 19th century, many people considered that industrialization and urbanization were the source of society’s ills. This sparked the temperance movement, which advocated moderation or abstinence from alcohol because of its perceived detrimental influence on society.

Temperance societies, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), campaigned against alcoholism to protect the home and strengthen family life. In addition to temperance, they endorsed many social reforms including community welfare, education and women’s suffrage to combat inequities like poverty and child labour. WCTUs realized that in order to prompt social change women needed to be able to influence government policies, which meant gaining the right to vote.

The temperance movement got more women interested in participating in public life and actively engaging in political and social reform. Nellie McClung, who was instrumental in winning women the right to vote in Manitoba in 1916, began to get involved in politics with the WCTU.

A black-and-white photograph of a seated woman, right hand propping up her head, right elbow on a table, a book in her left hand. She is looking directly at the camera.

Nellie McLung by Jessop Cyril (MIKAN 3622978)

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